For those willing to pay for it, some clinics offer therapy to solve a problem of filial distress. “They get some beautiful men to walk around naked beside you, or make you watch gay porn,” says Zhang Beichuan, one of China’s leading experts on homosexuality, describing a practice he doesn’t advocate. “The man naturally will get an erection. When his erection reaches a certain level, the instrument emits an electrical discharge, which upsets him. They repeat the process until the man doesn’t get excited anymore.”
To address this issue, the Chinese gay rights organization Queer Comrades interviewed Zhang and others for a documentary about two men struggling with their homosexuality, and the hospitals dotted around China advertising a solution. Titled “Cures That Kill” and released last week, it tells the story of A Wen, a Sichuanese photographer, and Sander Chan, an ethnic Chinese politician from Holland who spent years trying to use his belief in Christianity to exorcise his homosexuality: “I would often fast for one or two days after having a sexual fantasy, just as a reminder of what my goal is,” he stoically tells the camera.
A Wen’s malaise was caused by a problem common with the Chinese generation growing up in the 1980s and earlier: an almost complete lack of awareness of homosexuality. “There was a guy named Jiang that I secretly loved in high school. At which point I drank a half liter of sorghum liquor … that was the first time my parents sent me to a mental institution.”
Treatment of homosexuals has improved greatly over the last half century from the benighted confusion of the Mao years. In 2001, the health ministry removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. In the decade that followed, the expansion of civil society, the growth of the Internet and the development of psychological counseling have enabled homosexuals to feel more comfortable in a society that still fails to fully embrace them.
“A few years ago coming out among people I know was news, but not now,” says Hui Jin, a veterinarian and the executive director of Beijing’s LGBT center, who wears her hair short and spiky and at an interview was sporting a T-shirt showing a monkey juggling a skull, and who admitted sheepishly that she is still not out to people at the veterinary hospital. Though there are probably more than a hundred gay bars throughout China and more than a dozen gay support organizations in Beijing, other people “are just not aware of it,” Hui said, partially because Chinese media and popular culture lack openly gay characters.
Liu Chunjian, 32, is a family therapist who specializes in gay youth; in the documentary he speaks of the need for gays to accept themselves. “Homosexuality is innate, it’s not something that can be cured, but something that people must work to accept,” says Liu, who came out to his best friend five years ago but is still waiting for the right time to reveal his sexual orientation to his parents.
The consensus among the local gay community is that those on the mainland peddling cures for homosexuality, which include drug prescriptions, consultation, surgery and even electric shock , do it less out of a Christian or moral opposition to homosexuality and more out of a desire for financial gain. None of the doctors who claimed the ability to cure homosexuality were willing to cooperate with the documentary, so the moviemakers filmed a volunteer speaking with their clinics on the phone.
A representative from a clinic in the provincial capital of Taiyuan said homosexuality is a “sexual substitution problem, like boot fetishes,” and refused to elaborate, citing its desire to protect “its professional secrets.” “When you call as someone seeking a cure, you will make dollar signs flash in their eyes,” the film quotes Fang Gang, a sexology expert, as saying.
In China homosexuality is mostly seen as a family problem. Hui discussed a friend whose mother took her to a psychologist after the daughter came out. “The mom was going crazy, and really wanted to change her, but the psychologist was pretty professional and so didn’t think it was a disease. The mom felt pretty helpless.” Li Yinhe, one of China’s premier sexologists, estimates that 16 million Chinese men marry in order to please their family; she calls their spouses homowives.
“It’s less the people themselves wanting to visit clinics and get cured and more the parents after finding out their kid is gay, or wife because the husband is gay,” says Wei Xiaogang, co-founder of Queer Comrades and the documentary’s director, an impish man with a serious smile, whose “Cures,” a work equal parts earnest and amateur, will be put online and possibly screened in schools for educational purposes.
Fan Popo, a 26-year-old documentary filmmaker and former executive director of the Beijing LGBT center, says some parents, lacking any basic understanding of homosexuality, will drag their kid to a doctor after he comes out. Although his parents accept his homosexuality, “I have a sister who always says to me you should go to the hospital and see if they can cure you. She thinks now medicine is very developed, and you can cure everything.”
Chan, whose Christian-based cure involved “praying Jesus into his past,” snapped out of it not long after “sitting around a table with a group of gay Christians, and somehow the topic switched to depression, and I found out that everyone at the table had tried to commit suicide at some point.” He’s since happily been in relationships with men.
Now that he’s moved to Beijing and met other gays, A Wen realized who he is and learned to accept his sexual orientation. The film doesn’t explain how A Wen’s family shifted to tolerance but shows him, his parents and his boyfriend laughing together. In the documentary Zhang warns parents against foisting these therapies on their children. “I tell them that you might turn the person into a sexless being.” Pleadingly, he asks the parents, “Do you really want to deprive them of an essential experience of happiness in their life?”